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Understanding Anxiety Management #2

by Stuart Sorensen – RMN

 

I think, therefore I am.

And all that I am is dictated by my thoughts.

Thought breeds opinion, opinion belief.

Belief engenders attitude

And attitude, behavior.

Therefore in order to live well

A man must first strive to think well.

His thoughts must be as a strong fortress

To withstand the onslaught of derision and dogma

And yet welcoming enough to admit the arguments of reason.

Thought must be fluid and well conceived,

It must not be fixed and yet its’ foundations must be secure.

And thought belongs to us all.

In this, the second anxiety management handout, we will consider the psychological or cognitive symptoms of anxiety. Although it isn’t possible to cover all the cognitive aspects of anxiety in such a short document this should help you gain some understanding of the thoughts which give rise to anxiety (anxiogenic thoughts).

Before we begin to study the thoughts themselves it’s worth spending a little time thinking about the nature of thought itself and the effect thought has upon behavior. Actually psychologists believe that thoughts are a form of behavior themselves. They can be described as mental behaviors and as we all know behaviors can be changed.

The idea of thought as behavior is central to anxiety management. It is through taking control of and changing our thinking style that we develop the skills we need to cope with our worries. In the end it comes down to personal choice. We can choose which thoughts to accept and work with and which thoughts we’d rather ignore. This, in essence, is the cognitive basis of anxiety management.

Actually everyone already chooses their beliefs, no matter how unlikely or unsupportable they may be. That’s how we protect our Ego and self-esteem. That’s why two perfectly reasonable and intelligent people can draw completely different conclusions from the same evidence. Political differences or religious beliefs are classic examples of this ability we all have to choose what we want to believe. Sometimes we become so entrenched in our opinions that we actually choose to ignore every piece of evidence that doesn’t fit in with our preconceived notions about ‘reality’. At the same time we emphasize the evidence that does fit. Psychologists call this selective abstraction, without which inappropriate anxiety would arguably be impossible.

Nevertheless many people find it very difficult to accept the idea that we can choose what to believe. If you’re one of these people – and you’re not alone – please bear with me. By the end of this handout you’ll not only be convinced but also you’ll have learned a tried and tested formula with which to consciously decide upon anxiety beating beliefs instead of anxiety creating ones. All you have to do is read on with an open mind.

What follows is a series of statements or beliefs which either create or destroy anxiety. Each is followed by a short summary of its’ effect upon anxiety and, where appropriate an alternative belief is suggested. Please bear in mind that people usually decide what they want to believe first and then look for evidence to support it afterwards. That’s why lovers can do no wrong in each other’s eyes and the actions of enemies are generally considered to be malicious. It’s that old process of ‘selective abstraction’ again. Why not use the system to your advantage by making it conscious (within your control) instead of unconscious.

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STATEMENTS AFFECTING ANXIETY

  1. I can predict the future
  2. Most people deny holding this belief absolutely. They think of fortune telling as the realm of cranks and weirdoes. However many people spend their entire lives worrying about future predictions they have made which never come true. They have wrongly predicted the future with such conviction that they ruin any chance they may have had of finding peace of mind. Think about the things that have worried you over the years. The things you got most worked up about? How many of them actually came true no matter how convinced you were that they would? Anxiety is almost always based upon unconscious fortune telling.

    A more helpful belief may be:

    I can make an educated guess – a projection about what is likely to happen and then make plans to avoid catastrophe. Then I can stop worrying about it.

  3. If I think it then it has to be true.
  4. Once again most people deny holding this belief. On a conscious, rational level they know that thoughts are only thoughts. Unconsciously however anxious people become so convinced of the ‘truth’ of their thoughts that they stop being able to rationalize at all. If the thought in question is ‘fortune telling’ as discussed above then they really are setting themselves up for a fall.

    A more helpful belief may be:

    I can measure my thoughts objectively against the evidence and decide whether to accept or reject them. I don’t have to believe everything I consider.

  5. It is unbearable when things go wrong.
  6. This is called catastrophic thinking and it’s one of the fastest ways there is to destroy your peace of mind. After all, let’s fact it, things go wrong on a very regular basis. If you hold this belief then of course you’re going to worry. You may be very objective in your assessment of the situation – the fact that things do often go wrong – but the way you interpret that likelihood will give rise to anxiety. It’s important to get things into perspective.

    A more helpful belief may be:

    Things often don’t turn out the way I’d like them to. However it’s the little adversities in life that help me grow. Problems can be used to make me better – not bitter. I’m a resourceful human being with the ability to deal with most things so long as I think clearly about the problem and keep my anxiogenic thoughts under control.

  7. It’s a good idea to avoid stressful situations.
  8. Most people are surprised to learn that avoiding stress is one of the worst things we can do. Anxiety management is a skill and it takes practice. If we avoid stress we miss out on the practice and so we never learn to deal with it. What’s worse, we actually lose the coping skills we already have and so, over time we become more and more anxious.

    A more helpful belief may be:

    Life is full of stress but this can be overcome by thinking about it logically and taking positive action to change things for the better.

  9. I have to be in control to be safe.
  10. This belief is not only wrong it’s dangerous. Total control is impossible for anyone to achieve. There are always too many possibilities, too many things which may go wrong. If your peace of mind depends upon control you’ll never stop worrying.

    A more helpful belief may be:

    I can control my own actions and responses to the world. That’s as much as anyone can ever do. It’s enough because if I can control myself (and my thoughts) I can survive and actually grow from just about anything.

  11. I can change things which cannot be changed.

Unless you’re superhuman you can’t. Remember that anxiety is part of our natural defense mechanism. It’s a call to action. It alerts us to the fact that something is wrong and gives us the opportunity to change it. It has no place in situations which cannot be changed. Nevertheless how many of us worry about things which happened in the past for example – things which can never be changed. If you worry about past events instead of planning to overcome future problems you’re not only wasting your time you’re destroying your quality of life and, on one level at least, asking the impossible of yourself – to change what cannot be changed.

A more helpful belief may be:

There are some things which I cannot change. It’s better to concentrate upon what I can achieve instead of worrying pointlessly about the things I cannot. To put it another way:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things which cannot be changed; The courage to change the things which can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.

Of course this has been no more than a taster and there are many more cognitive aspects to anxiety. If you’ve found this information of use you may well benefit from counseling or a course in anxiety management. Whether you go on to learn more or not I hope you’ve enjoyed what we’ve covered here. Remember – you are responsible for your own quality of life. What are you going to do about it?

RECOMMENDED READING

 

Lyttle J. (1986)

Mental Disorder

Balliere Tindall

London

Chapter 16

Mills I (1990) in:

Dryden W. & Scott M. (1990)

An Introduction To Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

Gale Centre Publications

Loughton

Chapter 3

Compliments of Stuart Sorensen – RMN



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